Opponents to copper mining in the Santa Rita Mountains have had both reasons to celebrate and cause for disappointment this month. 

Hudbay Minerals, owner of the Rosemont Mine, suffered a major legal setback on May 12, 2022, when the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the company’s appeal of a prior permit denial, effectively preventing digging the Rosemont pit. 

The original lawsuit was filed in 2017 by Save the Scenic Santa Ritas (SSSR), the Center for Biological Diversity, the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition and the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. They argued that the Forest Service had illegally granted approval to Hudbay to use 2,447 acres of federal land for the dumping of 1.9 billion tons of rock tailings from the proposed open pit mine. 

In 2019 U.S. District Court Judge James Soto ruled in favor of the environmental groups, saying that “without valid mining claims, the public land can’t be used for mining activities,” as reported by Tucson.com. Hudbay and the U.S. Justice Department appealed, but the May 12 ruling by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Soto’s decision. 

During this time, Hudbay has been acquiring land and developing a second mining project in the Santa Ritas. Named after one of about 20 mines in the historic Helvetia Mining District, the Copper World project straddles the ridge from Gunsight Pass down to the Helvetia end of Santa Rita Rd. The project would use three pits to extract copper ore from a group of seven deposits identified over the last three years by Hudbay’s exploratory drilling program. Tailings would be stacked similarly to the Pima Mines west of I-19, up to 330 ft in height, and over three miles in length, acording to a Hudbay communication. 

There have been two legal efforts to halt the Copper World project, stemming from the US Clean Water Act. On April 14, 2022, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition filed a Notice of Intent (NOI) to bring citizen suits against the Copper World project, alleging that the project area has jurisdictional waters of the United States, and that Hudbay is illegally dumping dirt and rock into washes that are tributaries of the Santa Cruz River.

Also on April 14, the national group Earthjustice filed a similar NOI representing the Tohono O’odham Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe and Hopi Tribe. The Tribes requested a restraining order for ongoing ground clearing and movement of fill materials into washes. The Tribes’ grounds are that these pre-mining activities are now causing “severe, immediate, and irreversible harm to tribal cultural resources, waters of the US, and critical wildlife habitat.” 

In a ruling handed down on May 24, Judge Soto ruled in favor of Hudbay, stating that the Army Corps of Engineers does not have an obligation to include Copper World as part of its NEPA review of Rosemont. 

The judge also dismissed the preliminary injunction request filed by the plaintiffs in the two lawsuits challenging the Clean Water Act permit for Rosemont on the basis that the lawsuits are moot after the company surrendered its Section 404 Clean Water Act permit in April 2022. Hudbay had argued that there are no “jurisdictional waters of the US” in the Copper World project area, and thus that an Army Corps of Engineers permit is unnecessary. 

In a phone interview with the PRT, SSSR Executive Director Stu Williams disagreed with Soto’s ruling, stating that the private-property approach to avoiding the Environmental Impact Study normally required by NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) for a project of this scale “is an abomination.”

Hudbay’s May 12, 2022 press release promised a Preliminary Economic Assessment by the end of June, which will present an alternative mine plan for Rosemont Mine along with a two-phase mining operation for Copper World. “The first phase is expected to require only state and local permits, and is expected to reflect an approximate 15-year mine life. The second phase of the mine plan is expected to extend the mine life and incorporate an expansion onto Federal lands to mine the entire Rosemont and Copper World deposits.”